June, 73, has been living alone for 20 years. She tells everybody she loves living by herself, but she hates it. The silence of having no one around “becomes too much after a while”. Gurney, in his 90s, has been living in a care home for almost 10 years. The noise surrounding him is a reminder he is not by himself. Yet, he feels “so alone”.
June and Gurney share an affliction causing them endless sorrow: loneliness. Whether in aged care facilities or living alone – loneliness makes older people feel miserable and forgotten. And we know loneliness not only causes emotional suffering but also increases the risk of health issues from depression to dementia.
According to the World Health Organisation, it is a serious but overlooked social determinant of health in later life. Loneliness, driven by social restrictions and physical distancing measures of COVID-19 was termed “the shadow pandemic” in 2020. While loneliness already existed before the pandemic, COVID-19 drew attention to those vulnerable to loneliness and to the fact we can all experience it. Many people turned to technology to cope with the isolation of restrictions and lockdowns. But can technology help with loneliness in later life? We feel lonely when we miss companionship when we lack meaningful interaction with others. We can be surrounded by others and feel lonely because what matters here are quality relationships, not just relationships.
Being older does not mean being lonely – loneliness is not a universal condition in later life. June and Gurney are part of older groups vulnerable to loneliness: those living alone or in aged care facilities, whilst facing health and social issues that restrict their opportunities for connection. Digital technology can help create and support those opportunities – but its effectiveness depends on how it is designed and used. Several technology-based interventions have been employed to address loneliness in later life, including general Internet use, apps, social media, virtual reality, and robotic companions.
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Using the Internet is associated with lower levels of loneliness among older people. And new evidence suggests animatronic pets can be successful in alleviating loneliness in later life. Yet, technology-based interventions often neglect the diverse contexts and needs of older people. For example, we know little about the long-term impact and sustainability of these measures.
Likewise, we tend to forget that interventions can have the opposite effect and unintentionally increase rather than reduce loneliness. June likes her iPad, but she gets bored after a while. Gurney can’t live without his computer, but frailty is affecting the time he can spend online. Technology-based responses to loneliness can miss the mark.
The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is limited. Despite recurrent stereotypes, older people are a very heterogeneous group with different desires, aspirations, and capabilities. One technology or feature does not cater to everyone. Tackling loneliness with the help of technology requires more personalized and tailored interventions that overcome the idea of the single user or profile.
Loneliness is not a simple phenomenon, it’s a complex social issue. Western societies are more individualistic and place a higher value on independence and self-reliance. But older people facing health and social issues that constrain their ability to reach out to others and engage in social activities are left out. And when they do talk to others about loneliness, they are usually dismissed or shamed for not “being more resilient” or “more active”. There is a stigma about loneliness. It’s seen as a personal failure.
Older people who experience loneliness think they are no longer interesting or relevant. They internalize blame and guilt about feeling lonely. The social stigma of loneliness interacts with the stigma of being old and frail in a society that devalues both. Many older people don’t tell their families and friends about their loneliness because of how it affects their sense of personhood. They don’t want to be seen as dependent or an added burden. They suffer in silence.
And not all older people use or want to rely on new technologies. While many older people use new technologies and are tech-savvy, others do not for a variety of reasons from lack of skills to accessibility. The digital divide still impacts some older populations.
During the pandemic, many found that learning to use new technologies on their own was difficult. Instructions were hard to follow, and technology support services were indifferent to their struggles. It made them feel incompetent and excluded. How we design and implement technologies and services is vital to avoid digital ageism or marginalization and facilitate digital inclusion. Techno-solutionism is popular, but social problems can’t be solved by just throwing more technology at them.
Technology is often insufficient to fully lessen loneliness. People also need face-to-face contact and activities. Technology can help if it’s part of a suite of responses that include, for example, community-based initiatives to destigmatize loneliness. It also helps to include older people, ironically often excluded from designing or testing technology expected to help them. Older people have critical life experiences and perspectives that can inform interventions and including them respects their autonomy and dignity. June and Gurney are excited about technologies, but they don’t want us to forget that loneliness is not a technological problem – as they both noted, it’s a “people problem”.